SCA Talk – Part Three

Posting the final part of my talk about the “Science of Roasting” from this year’s Beanstock:

“Allow me to conclude by talking about the political dimension of our industry’s black boxes. To recap once more, Bruno Latour uses the Black Box as a way to analyze how ideas, theories, objects, and actions become naturalized or accepted. While not permanent, they will remain intact or durable as long as they are ‘low maintenance’ and do not garner too much attention. To illustrate with an example: I write a meandering polemic weekly email to our poor wholesale clients and one of the heavily featured topics is flavour. Dialing in espresso, crafting parameters, building taste notes, or cupping table scoring all function with the act of tasting as a black box. We think about the outcomes – flavours – but rarely spend much time talking about the mechanics of taste. The physiology of flavour is highly varied, with sensitivity and intensity differing person-to-person. With each of these dissimilarities, the body then mixes the information from its receptors in particular proportions. And yet, we assume a rigid process free of subjectivity.

So onto the black box that is the culture of specialty coffee. I realize we are drifting further and further from the topic that I was invite to cover but bear with me and we will loop back! For Latour, black boxes operate in alliances. He describes the way “borrowed forces keep one another in check so that none can fly apart”. Essentially by establishing and streamlining a larger whole, it becomes more difficult to challenge any part or individual piece. Given the scope of today, I am doing disservice to his work – but Latour explains how black boxes in alliances will cater to each other’s interests, persuade the group to what is feasible or impossible and eventually work to make their interlocked links indispensable. If an individual black box is broken from its allegiances, it shifts from “established fact to artifact” meaning ideas, theories, machines, inventions, objects, or industries fall into obsolescence.

It is easy to trace the alliances of black boxes in coffee: the romantic lore around green production, the barista myths for brewing, or the disconnected science against the internal commandments for roasting. The more interesting question becomes: as “obligatory passage points” how does this alliance shape the very future or possibilities for coffee? On Thursday [note: this refers to the “Unfiltered: Throw-down and Panel Discussion” held on May 24th], there was an absolutely amazing discussion on ‘Diversity and Representation in Coffee’. Many of the panelists pointed out the systemic problem of visibility in cafés, agreeing that there are particular voices that are continually amplified against those that are suppressed. In one example, Priscilla Fisher from Floozy Coffee Roasters recounted green importers dropping off samples and bypassing her for whatever “coffee type dude” was in the space. In terms of entrenched black boxes, the personified embodied vision of ‘roaster’ is what Priscilla accurately describes as a “bearded and tattooed cis-white male”.

The reason I want to rely so heavily upon Latour is to make the point that there is an entire constructed network – starting with the plant and extending across the chain to the cup – that shapes the politics of coffee sourcing, roasting, brewing, and curation. A network that perpetually strengthens itself, while simultaneously rendering itself invisible. Most sinisterly, it is a group of black boxes erasing equality and necessitating key interventions like the “Unfiltered” round-table. We too frequently treat farms and farmers as input and output points for plants to processed coffee. Cupping scores trump lived experience. We need to focus on the mechanics of farming that are frequently lost and communicate to customers that all coffee should be expensive for a very simple reason: people should be paid for their labour and hand-picking and processing coffee is a colossal amount of work.

We are all likely familiar with the allure of the celebrity barista from customers who praise particular shot-pullers or the performance of competitions, or the way authority propagates by way of training in any shop. These black boxes are part and parcel of the institutional memory of a café and every time we focus on the person or persona rather than the actual complexity of extraction, we hinge the conversation on the exceptional individual. As an “obligatory passage point”, the subway tile, pour-overs, and reclaimed wood of the specialty coffee shop, which are centered around a singular performance, thus becomes another linkage in the alliance that erases the work of those underrepresented people around and behind the coffee.

I hope my two-fold approach to the ‘Science of Roasting’ today is clear. On one hand, my work with the University of Toronto hopes to shed light on the actual processes behind modern roasting techniques by pushing the research towards the roaster and vice versa. On the other hand, we can apply this same understanding of the black box to the myth, lore, and culture of the industry. For Latour, “the simplest means of transforming a juxtaposed set of allies into a whole – that acts as one – is to tie the assembled forces to one another”. When we talk about injustice at the farm level, for example abysmal wages or environmental destruction, we are also talking about the way we perform service or the types of coffee shops we inhabit at the café level. As input and output black boxes, they all connect.

Exclusionary acts and spaces of inequality reinforce one another. Specialty coffee has evolved as a reaction to many of the historic problems entrenched in growing, roasting, and brewing. Yet, if we naturalize and repeat the same broken models, we end with an equally problematic monoculture. We need to do more than just change one box – we need to think through the entirety of the alliance. I often say this period will be remembered as a golden age of coffee. We have unparalleled access to so much incredible green and are able leverage technology to roast and brew in ways that truly illuminate the unique elements of origin. But it is already closing with shifting growing conditions and declining yields, so I hope that we can change, alter, and build an industry with an alliance of black boxes purposely build on intersectional and progressive politics. Let us never accept the status quo as a given. For Latour, nothing is fixed in place, nor is it permanent – the world is comprised of component parts, all in action, and all open to challenge.”